By Mary Bisciaio
The state requirements for data retention in recent years has pushed public high schools to structure history classes in much the same way as college classes. Rather than a huge block of time or concept, we moved toward smaller fragments of history that could be completed in a twenty-week semester. On the plus side, it allowed for the more in-depth or concentrated study of a particular subject and gave students more choices within the American history curriculum. A lot of districts offered Black History classes, a study of the Vietnam War, or a focused class in Liberty and Conflict. It helped a great deal in delivering content in units that high school students could handle, digest, and enjoy.
I was fortunate to be asked to develop a new class, a study of women. Brand new to me, my research had me on overload and stepping back. What did I want my students to know? Easy, the accomplishments of women, but just as important I wanted to showcase the struggles in a society that wasn’t always ready to accept the role woman wanted to play. A society that had a problem with bright articulate women who pushed to redesign their place. They were wonderful mothers and homemakers, but they were without basic rights. Their children didn’t belong to them nor any property they shared with a husband. They didn’t have inheritance rights or the right to vote. Men of every color had the right to vote decades before any women in this country.
Armed with my research, we offered the class, and as predicted it filled with upper-class girls and a few brave boys who needed a half credit. The course was challenging; so much to cover in a short period of time. I structured the course chronologically and a lot of the class became oral in nature. Round table discussion to focus the woman from each time period, and for my students to meet as many of the trailblazers in history that had left a mark. The Revolutionary War and Civil War eras were difficult because of the limited number of resources available to us. I spent weekends at local college libraries looking for supplementary materials.
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Did you know Martha Washington arrived at Valley Forge with much-needed supplies and fed and nursed the wounded?
Did you know Margaret Corbin was with her husband at Fort Washington when the British attacked? When her husband was killed, she took over firing the cannon alone.
Women of the Revolution and the Civil War eras hoped that the discussions of rights, human rights would include those for women, but the struggle continued.
One of my favorite parts of the class was the struggle for the right to vote. What had women sacrificed to get a voice, the power of the vote? We looked at the militant women, the Brits, who were cutting telephone wires, smashing mailboxes, burning down the offices of prominent politicians, and even carving messages in golf courses. While American women were slow to break the law, they finally resorted to protesting outside the White House and protesting a wartime President who didn’t address the problems of women. Woodrow Wilson listened condescendingly to their pleas, but he did nothing to help them move closer to gaining the right to vote. He listened to them like children and lit a fire in the hearts of suffragettes like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. America was fighting overseas in 1918 for the human rights of other nations and yet, denying these same rights to their mothers, sisters, and daughters. The protesting continued amid threats by the public who thought it was wrong to challenge a sitting wartime President. With little else he could do, Wilson had them arrested for trespassing, though they carefully stayed on the sidewalk on public property. They were sentenced to a ten dollar fine which they refused to pay, and they were taken to jail. More women joined the movement, more protesting followed until Alice Paul and her supporters refuse to eat in prison. Wilson couldn’t have these women die on his watch so, with his expressed consent or not, these women were held in straight jackets and force-fed. I showed the movie, Iron Jawed Angels which visually depicted the facts of history. What had women sacrificed so that future women would have the right to vote? I challenged them to save the images in their memory banks for the times it rained on election day or it was too cold or they had too much to do to go to the polls and vote. Such a precious gift was given to all women.
I showed them another movie about the accomplishments of women. It was nothing more than a list, a very long list, but my unsuspecting students didn’t know my motives when I gave them paper and asked them to jot down names and their fields for the day’s credit. Oh, the movie started slow enough with Helen Keller and Marie Curie, but five minutes in, it picked up the pace. The names coming fast and furious, and my class shouted out their frustration. I smiled and paused the movie. “What’s wrong?” They whined they couldn’t keep up. Too many names, too many fields, too many accomplishments, and suddenly the light dawned. My point. When had they ever heard these names in their history classes? Women in:
- Sports like Gertrude Ederle, the first to swim the English Channel, Billy Jean King in tennis, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee for the long jump.
- Literature like Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Laura Engels Wilder, Mary Shelley, and Maya Angelou.
- Science Like Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA, Caroline Herschel identifying seven comets, and Rachel Carson’s work in marine biology and the environment.
- Medicine like Virginia Apgar who created the standard test for newborn health, Sara Josephine Baker who raised concerns for public health standards and child welfare, and Alice Ball who suggested a new treatment for leprosy.
- Government like Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.
- Space like Geraldine Cobb, Sally Ride, and Mae Jamison.
- Leaders of Countries like Angela Merkle of Germany and Michelle Bachelet of Chili.
- Hollywood actresses and models like Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, Betty Davis, Lauren Bacall, and Audrey Hepburn. And Colleen Moore, a silent film actress, born in Port Huron, Michigan.
- Musicians/Singers like Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Joan Baez, and Nancy Sinatra.
- Artists like Mary Cassatt, impressionism, Georgia O’Keefe, abstract art, and Agnes Martin.
- News broadcasting like Barbara Walters and Connie Chung.
- The military like Clara Barton in field hospitals during the Civil War and Tammy Duckworth, the current senator from Illinois whose helicopter was shot out from under her, leaving her physically disabled, but ready for the next chapter in her life.
- Designers like Maya Lin who designed the Vietnam Memorial.
- Architects like Denise Scott Brown, Julie Morgan, and Annabelle Selldorf.
- Teachers like Christa McAuliffe lost on the Challenger in 1986 and Ann Preston.
- Nurses like Florence Nightingale.
- Businesswomen like C.J. Walker who pioneered hair products specifically for black women that made her the first female millionaire.
- Pilots like Amelia Earhart.
- Mathematicians and computer language like Grace Harper.
- First Ladies like Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Barbara Bush.
- Suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Emily Davidson.
Harriet Tubman, Abigail Adams, so many women around the world of all colors showcasing their intelligence, their perseverance, and their will to right a wrong, fix a problem or make life better for all of us.
Many names I’ve missed in this limited list, but I have to add Victoria Woodhull. Well ahead of her time, she formed her own political party and ran for President of the United States in 1872. Even had she been successful, Victoria was younger than the Constitutional 35-year-old requirement to run, but that didn’t stop her. Her vision of a woman president still persists today.
At the end of my class, I created The First Annual Conference for the Celebration of Women. My students were required to pick a woman and become her. This wasn’t an oral report. This was coming to class looking like, sounding like, and knowing the woman well enough to talk about herself and answer questions from the audience. It was acting, staying in character. The boys could come as the spouse of the woman and discuss her with us. Joe DiMaggio showed up to talk about the love of his life, Marilyn. We met Princess Di, who gave us the scoop on her tenuous marriage to Charles, and the real story from Jackie O. I hosted movie stars, athletes, political figures, and one student came as her mother, the woman who had struggled to raise her and her three brothers and sisters. I have such fond memories of those classes.
March is Women’s History Month. Understand the message Abigail Adams sent in a letter to her husband, John, in March of 1776.
“And by the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
We should all remember the ladies!